Laura knew her brief relationship with work colleague Jack was over when he admitted he was “still in love with his ex.” She remembers how her housemate stroked her hair while she sobbed in bed, and fed her pizza as they watched Clueless. She definitely remembers the toe-curlingly awkward conversation she was forced to have with her line manager when she handed her notice in the next day.
But despite the breadcrumb trail of pain Jack left for Laura, when he texted her asking to go for a drink three months later, she found herself agreeing — and putting on her lacy red thong under her leather skirt before she headed off.
“In my head I was thinking, he’s a prick, I really don’t want this, but also I want to know if he still wants me, and whether I even feel anything for him,” she explains.
Laura’s curiosity in seeing whether she and Jack still had chemistry between the sheets is just one of a myriad of reasons why people end up having sex post-breakup. Unlike the good old days before the internet, we are now forced to confront our exes on a daily basis; seeing them pop up on social channels and apps. Even our iPhone is keen to vomit up random photos on our home screen, showing us a picture of us and our former SO during happier times just when we’re feeling our most vulnerable.
“Breakup sex can go one of two ways,” says dating and relationship expert Sarah-Louise Ryan. “It can confirm that the spark or emotional connection has gone in a relationship or it can be that one party of the two realized that they do not in fact want to draw a line in the sand.
“The intimacy may give a false restart to a situation emotionally when we physically connect with an ex again,” she says. “Closure defines the end of something but actually some people that reconnect with an ex for sex can sometimes be looking for something casual but they mix up a whole load of emotions by revising the old instead of working on welcoming someone new between the sheets.”
He put his phone on airplane mode so she wouldn’t bother him while were were at the pub.
“And, in short, sex with someone after a breakup is a temporary solution to the physical and emotional pain that both or one might be seeking to heal in order to move forward,” Ryan explains.
After a bit of an awkward start to their drink, Laura and Jack found themselves falling back into the same, flirtatious habits after a few glasses of wine, which naturally saw them back in Jack’s bedroom.
While Laura admits the sex was “good,” it was not the soft, tender sex the pair had previously shared and it jolted her back to her senses.
“He was doing this dirty talk which made me cringe,” she laughs. “And I was on top so I had to do most of the work.
“I had massive regret the next day, especially when I found out he’d started dating someone else in the office and had put his phone on airplane mode when we were at the pub so she couldn’t bother him,” Laura admits. “It just confirmed to me he was a dickhead and we didn’t speak again.”
Aoife* had a similar experience when she had “closure” sex with her ex-girlfriend Stephanie*. The pair had had an intense but tumultuous relationship for two years while Aoife was working abroad. After the sudden split of her parents, Aoife (who was keen to remain on good terms with Stephanie) needed someone to talk to about the situation, and their initially platonic rendezvous led to sex.
“I didn’t go with the intention but it was one of these things when you’re going through a difficult time, you gravitate towards the person you feel most at home with,” Aoife explains.
“I was really trying to keep control of myself but the way she was behaving, hugging and kissing me, I couldn’t stop myself,” she says. “I knew it was objectively wrong, but it felt right. It’s still the best sex I’ve ever had. It was medicinal, in a way.”
Ryan agrees that breakup sex can feel good, if not better, than the sex was in the relationship.
“Sex itself releases all of those feel-good hormones to the brain to lessen pain,” she explains. “When we orgasm, dopamine is released, heightening out feelings of desire, motivation and also pleasure and so it can be easy to associate those feelings with an ex.”
The excuse she gave me was stupid, she said she’d been with a music producer who wanted to cast her in a video, which just made me laugh because it was so ridiculous.
“We are our most vulnerable when we are physically and emotionally intimate with someone and if there is no defined future, it leaves a space for mixed emotions, feeling out of control and worries about what it was, or is, to grow,” she continues. “In short, sex makes us feel good. But how it leaves many feeling after sex with an ex is questionable. I mostly hear stories of confusion, emotional turmoil or a craving of the physical in the same way again.”
Aoife thought her and Stephanie would be able to discuss the events of the night before, and was left feeling hopeful after the pair had a romantic morning in bed together.
But she was soon reminded why the pair broke up when Stephanie left Aoife in her house with no explanation.
“She said she was nipping out but she wasn’t back until the evening,” Aoife says. “The excuse she gave me was stupid as well. She said she’d been with a music producer who wanted to cast her in a video, which just made me laugh because it was so ridiculous.
“That night she had a bit too much to drink and she got angry and snappy at me. At that point, I realized the cycle was never going to stop unless I fully cut off all contact with her. I guess in a sense [the sex] served as a realization that I really truly couldn’t do this anymore,” Aoife concludes.
Not all our tales of breakup sex are necessarily as woeful. Fueled by Dutch courage following a drunken night out at university, Kat* turned up at her ex Michael’s* house. She knew he was in on his own, and decided to shoot her shot.
“We’d broken up about six months ago, but had tried to remain friends because we’d been together for so long,” Kat says. “I’d been casually seeing other people but nothing really compared to what me and Michael had.”
While Michael was surprised to have Kat on his doorstep, things quickly got intense after Kat stated her intentions.
“The sex was really good,” she explains. “None of my encounters since the split had been particularly satisfying, and Michael and I knew each other’s bodies so well. It was familiar and comforting.”
While Kat was left wondering whether she’d done the right thing, the next morning, after a cup of tea and two slices of wholemeal toast made by Michael, the pair talked over their feelings, and decided to give things between them another go.
“Ultimately, we realized we broke up for reasons that could be remedied, and thought what we had was worth trying for,” she says.
Having an open and honest conversation is likely the only way to have objectively less problematic breakup sex, Sarah says.
“The idea of ‘closure’ sex is to finalize the time that two people spent together — often seen as one last orgasmic hoorah, so to speak,” she says. “It can only ever work if the two people cease contact afterwards. We should look back to learn the lessons about what we want and do not want. We should use it to have reflection and take stock.”
The moment led to us properly having some closure in our relationship. It gave us the chance to move on.
Kat and Michael’s reunion was fairly short-lived, with the pair breaking up for good the following year, but Kat doesn’t regret the final time with her ex.
“Some people said we scratched an itch we shouldn’t have,” she says. “But on the whole, the moment led to us properly having some closure in our relationship. It gave us the chance to move on.”
Like breakups themselves, breakup sex is very rarely clear-cut, often leading to a tangle of emotions, uncertainty and distress. But, like many things that aren’t “good” for us, the temptation of good sex and curiosity over an ex can have you doing things you know your friends will give you a hard time for when you tell them over brunch. So next time you find yourself reaching for your phone after your ex’s name flashes up, only start packing your overnight bag if you’re ready to confront your feelings afterwards.
“Can sleeping with someone you cared about one last time ever be healthy? More often than not, one person is always bound to get hurt,” Ryan says.
“If the bridges haven’t been burnt badly it should also be considered that one party might just want to keep that door open for sexual opportunity but not real emotional connection. That’s tricky in itself, as it can blur the lines,” she continues.
“Sex with an ex can be momentarily stabilizing from the mixture of stirred emotions we endure during a breakup,” Ryan says. “But for every example of closure sex being a positive experience, I could probably show you a hundred of examples and case studies where it hasn’t helped but only hindered one or both parties.”
*names have been changed
This article was originally posted on Refinery29 UK.
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